Implant restores sight in blind patients by beaming images directly to the brain

Engineers have developed a new neural implant which could help completely blind people by bypassing non-functioning optical nerves and inputting images directly into their brain. Currently being tested by researchers at Houston, Texas’ Baylor College of Medicine, the Orion device could be a game-changer for people who are unable to take in visual information through their eyes. It has already resulted in partial sight being restored to six participants in an experimental study.

“For many years, we have been studying how the brain encodes visual information,” said Dr. Daniel Yoshor, Professor of Neurosurgery at Baylor, in a statement. “When you think of vision, you think of the eyes, but most of the work is being done in the brain. The impulses of light that are projected onto the retina are converted into neural signals that are transmitted along the optic nerve to parts of the brain.”

The Orion device consists of a brain implant with 60 electrodes which deliver stimulation patterns to the visual part of the brain. In the majority of blind patients, this part of the brain is undamaged. However, it is not used to being utilized because no information is being sent to it from the eyes. The Orion works by using a camera mounted on a pair of glasses. This camera gathers images which are then delivered as a pattern of brain stimulation which matches up with the intended visual image.

While the device is still considered experimental technology, its developers appear to be making progress. The test currently being carried out is the first-ever FDA-approved clinical trial of a visual cortical prosthesis. This is a critical step forward, but there is still much work to be done. In Baylor College’s feasibility study, participants were just shown — and asked to identify — a white square against a black screen. To create more complex images, it will be necessary to vastly scale up the number of electrodes used for stimulating the brain. This should make it possible to create far more complex images, one pixel-equivalent at a time, by stimulating thousands of locations on the occipital part of the brain.

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